Baseball America released its preseason Top 100 list a few weeks ago, and while they could easily have gone the way of other outlets and chosen Los Angeles’ Mike Trout or Tampa Bay’s Matt Moore as their top prospect, I’m not sure it came as a surprise to see Washington’s Bryce Harper sitting at atop the list for the second consecutive year. (Baseball America also awarded him the only overall “80” rating in the 2012 Prospect Handbook; both Trout and Moore received “75” grades.)
The only reason it was at all surprising is that it doesn’t happen very often. Since Baseball America started carving Top 100 lists into slabs of granite back in 1990, only two players have received the top spot two years in a row: Atlanta’s Andruw Jones in 1996-97 and Minnesota’s Joe Mauer in 2004-05. Before I take a quick look at the careers of those two players, a few fun facts about the other number ones on previous Top 100 lists:
- Three times, a player was named the number one prospect in the game, then fell to number two the following year. Oddly enough, it happened three straight years, from 1991-93. The three players were Todd Van Poppel (1991), Brien Taylor (1992), and Chipper Jones (1993). (Van Poppel yielded to Taylor, Taylor to Jones, Jones to Cliff Floyd.) Rick Ankiel went the other way, coming in second to future teammate J.D. Drew in 1999 before ascending to the top spot in 2000.
- In 2011, Harper became the sixth player to reach number one in his first appearance on the list. The others were Steve Avery (1990), Van Poppel (1991), Taylor (1992), J.D. Drew (1999), and Daisuke Matsuzaka (2007). Avery was drafted in 1988 and likely benefited from the fact that Baseball America didn’t begin publishing their list until 1990, as he probably would have appeared in 1989.
- Avery, Drew, and Matsuzaka are the only three number ones to make just one appearance on the list.
- Chipper Jones, Mauer, and Delmon Young had three of the more impressive runs in Top 100 history. Each made four appearances in the Top Ten. Jones went 4-1-2-3 from 1992-95, Mauer went 7-4-1-1 from 2002-05, and Young went 3-3-1-3 from 2004-07.
- Four players who were named Baseball America’s top prospect went on to win Most Valuable Player awards: Chipper Jones (1999), Alex Rodriguez (2003, 2005, 2007), Joe Mauer (2009), and Josh Hamilton (2010). None has won a Cy Young or Rookie of the Year award.
- The full Top 100 history of the overall top players is listed at the end of this post.
Alright, now a few words about Harper’s predecessors, Jones and Mauer.
Jones was signed by the Atlanta Braves in 1993 out of Willemstad, Curacao and made his professional debut the following season, hitting .290/.368/.412 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues. He hit three homeruns, drove in 26, and stole 21 bases in 32 attempts (66%). Defensively, he made five errors and had three outfield assists in 62 games (179 total chances), but I’m guessing he had already begun flashing the skills that later won him ten major league Gold Gloves.
The following season he jumped up to Macon in the South Atlantic League and blossomed, hitting .277/.372/.512 with 25 homeruns, 100 RBI, and 56 steals in 67 attempts (84%) as an eighteen year old. His defensive numbers improved as well, with four errors in 346 chances, ten assists, and four double plays. I imagine watching him roam centerfield back then might have been like watching a guy like Anthony Gose or Mason Williams out there today. His overall performance in 1996 landed him atop Baseball America’s list for the first time.
He moved to High-A Durham in 1997 and crushed it: .313/.419/.605 with 17 homeruns, 43 RBI, and 16 steals in 66 games. He was promoted to Double-A Greenville and crushed it: .369/.432/.675 with 12 homeruns, 37 RBI, and 12 steals in 38 games. He was promoted to Triple-A Richmond and crushed it: .378/.391/.822 with five homeruns, 12 RBI, and two steals in 12 games. The totals, if you’re scoring at home: .339/.421/.652, 34 homeruns, 92 RBI, 30 steals. It was a very good year.
After a mid-August call-up in which he hit .217/.265/.443 with five homeruns in 31 games, Jones was again named baseball’s top prospect. In 1997, he began a career that currently consists of at least two acts.
The first act spanned from approximately 1996-2007, when Jones hit 368 homeruns and made five All-Star appearances with the Braves. He had three 20-20 seasons in a row from 1998-2000, led the league in homeruns (51) and RBI (128) in 2005, and won ten Gold Gloves in centerfield.
The second act began after he signed a two-year deal worth $36.2 million with the Dodgers prior to the 2008 season. It didn’t go well. Jones hit .158/.256/.249 with just three homeruns in 75 games for Los Angeles and was released the following January. He has since followed the Reggie Sanders plan – three teams in the following three seasons (Texas in 2009, Chicago in 2010, and New York in 2011; he’s expected to be with the Yankees again in 2012) as a valuable part-time outfielder and designated hitter.
Mauer’s path to the major leagues began when he was drafted first overall by the Minnesota Twins in the 2001 draft. He signed in mid-July and appeared in 32 games that season with the Elizabethton Twins in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, hitting .400/.492/.491. He was Baseball America’s seventh-rated prospect leading into the following season, which was spent with Quad Cities in the Midwest League. In addition to catching 81 games and throwing out 42% of would-be base stealers, Mauer hit .302/.393/.392 with four homeruns and 62 RBI in 110 games for the River Bandits, a performance that bumped him up to number four on Baseball America’s 2003 list.
The year that led to Mauer’s first appearance atop the Top 100 list, 2003, was split between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain. It was a sign of things to come: .338/.398/.434, five homeruns, 85 RBI, and a 52% success rate against opposing base runners in 135 games (99 of them behind the plate).
In addition to establishing him as the game’s top prospect, 2003 earned Mauer a shot with the Twins in 2004. He was limited by injuries to just 35 games, however, retaining eligibility to sit atop Baseball America’s list again leading into the 2005 season. Again, he began the 2005 season in the major leagues and has never really looked back, winning three batting titles (2006, 2008, 2009), three Gold Gloves (2008-10), and the 2009 American League’s Most Valuable Player award (he has finished in the Top Ten three other times). In the spring of 2010, he signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Twins.
Harper’s career is much more shiny and new, obviously, but no less promising than his predecessors. Like Jones, he played in the South Atlantic League as an 18-year-old. Unlike Jones, Harper lasted just 72 games in the circuit before his .318/.423/.554, 14 homeruns, 46 RBI, and 19 stolen bases forced a promotion. Where both Jones and Mauer spent time in High-A as teenagers, the Nationals moved Harper completely past that level, instead deciding to give him a chance in the Double-A Eastern League. He acquitted himself well with Harrisburg, bouncing back from a slow start to hit .256/.329/.395 with three homeruns, 12 RBI, and seven steals in 37 games.
We’ll have to see where Harper ends up this season. The Prospect Handbook suggested Harrisburg or Syracuse to start, with the possibility of a trip to Washington at some point, while Nationals manager Davey Johnson has expressed an interest in having the kid as his starting rightfielder from Day One. It will be interesting to see if he loses his rookie/prospect status by season’s end; if not, he will very likely become the first three time number one prospect in Baseball America’s history.
Baseball America says that Harper “looks like a sure-fire superstar in the making” and that “he has a very real chance to develop into the best all-around player in baseball.” One thing I think is certain, however: if he has a career as good as the ones enjoyed by Jones and Mauer, he’ll have nothing to be sorry about when it’s over.
2012: Bryce Harper (2011: #1; 2012: #1)
2011: Bryce Harper (2011: #1; 2012: #1)
2010: Jason Heyward (2008: #28; 2009: #5; 2010: #1)
2009: Matt Wieters (2008: #12; 2009: #1)
2008: Jay Bruce (2006: #76; 2007: #14; 2008: #1)
2007: Daisuke Matsuzaka
2006: Delmon Young (2004: #3; 2005: #3; 2006: #1; 2007: #3)
2005: Joe Mauer (2002: #7; 2003: #4; 2004: #1; 2005: #1)
2004: Joe Mauer (2002: #7; 2003: #4; 2004: #1; 2005: #1)
2003: Mark Teixeira (2002: #10; 2003: #1)
2002: Josh Beckett (2000: #19; 2001: #3; 2002: #1)
2001: Josh Hamilton (2000: #13; 2001: #1; 2002: #18; 2003: #33)
2000: Rick Ankiel (1998: #18; 1999: #2; 2000: #1)
1999: J.D. Drew
1998: Ben Grieve (1995: #10; 1996: #37; 1997: #18; 1998: #1)
1997: Andruw Jones (1995: #21; 1996: #1; 1997: #1)
1996: Andruw Jones (1995: #21; 1996: #1; 1997: #1)
1995: Alex Rodriguez (1994: #6; 1995: #1)
1994: Cliff Floyd (1992: #34; 1993: #3)
1993: Chipper Jones (1991: #49; 1992: #4; 1993: #1; 1994: #2; 1995: #3)
1992: Brien Taylor (1992: #1; 1993: #2; 1994: #18)
1991: Todd Van Poppel (1991: #1; 1992: #2; 1993: #7)
1990: Steve Avery
Photo: UPI (John Dickerson)